An association with the awe-inspiring master

To add a two bits more about Mr S. Muthiah, he inspires people around him, not merely because of the amount of work he performs and its breathtaking range, but also because of the high standards he brings to any work he takes up. If it’s deadline time and the copy is not perfect, the printer will have to wait. It’s as simple as that. It’s also his high moral standards. Years ago, he had told me he would never even recommended his daughter for a job.

It was while writing for Madras Musings and contributing to some of his books that I began looking at heritage in different light. I’m sure V. Sriram, who is fast making a mark as a writer and raconteur, will say the same thing. When Vincent D’Souza, editor, Mylapore Times, Adyar Times and Arcot Road Times, got the Mylapore Festival going and made a success of it, and then went on to launch Madras Day, it was Muthiah who soon took the initiative to call for meetings of the core team and arrange several events on behalf of Chennai Heritage, getting a comprehensive programme sheet produced, and actually extending Madras Day to Madras Week and Madras Fortnight. All this when he could have easily sat back and advised all of us. He chose to be hands-on – after all, it was a subject very close to his heart.

Muthiah’s association with Sri Lanka goes back to a father who came to study at Ananda College in 1916 and stayed on. V. Vr. N. M. Subbiah Chettiar, better known in Ceylon as M. Subbiah, was a stockbroker but he was better known for his involvement in Ceylon politics, being a nominated member of the Colombo Municipal Council for several years, deputy mayor twice, acting mayor several times and, most significantly, being the founder-president of the Ceylon Indian Congress formed in 1939 by 16 Indian associations in Ceylon. Later that year, after Jawaharlal Nehru’s visit, the Ceylon Indian Congress and the Ceylon Indian Association merged to become the second Ceylon Indian Congress. Subbiah stood for election to the Nuwara Eliya seat in 1947 and lost a close verdict. He left Ceylon for personal reasons in 1960 and settled in his village in India.

Muthiah studied in Ladies’ College, St Thomas Prep, where F.T. Keble was to prove the greatest influence on his life (getting him interested in reading, writing and editing journals). He was one of the first batch of students from this part of the world to go to the United States for higher studies immediately after World War II. There he was active in campus journalism and worked with local newspapers. Returning to Ceylon in 1951, circumstances forced Muthiah to rethink a career in the foreign service and he joined The Times of Ceylon and became wedded to journalism and writing ever since. He was foreign news editor, features editor and in charge of the Sunday Times and The Times of Ceylon Annual, a most sought-after publication. He also wrote about sport in the Island; his By the Corner Flag he campaigned for taking cricket to rural areas and getting the police and services interested in rugby.

1968 was a turning point – he arrived in India after a citizenship hiccup. In Madras, he founded TT Maps & Atlases for the TTK Group, and pioneered the publication of maps, atlases and tourist guidebooks. For years after retirement in the early 1990s, he continued as president emeritus of the company.

The range of his activities is amazing – he has taught journalism and print production at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan from 1972 till well into the mid-1990s, and at Anna Univeristy and the University of Madras. Many senior journalists in Chennai today were taught by him at some time or the other (Shreekumar Varma whispered to me last week at the book launch that he was a student).

Muthiah helped found India’s first degree course in printing technology at Anna University in 1980. He has been an office bearer of the Madras Printers’ and Lithographers’ Association, the All Indian Federation of Master Printers, the Booksellers and Publishers Association of South India, the Indian National Cartographic Association, and the Public Relations Society of India, Tamil Nadu Chapter. The PRSI, whose journal I edit, has enormous respect for him even today. He was a co-convener of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, TN Chapter. In March 2002, Muthiah was awarded the MBE by the Queen of England for his work on heritage and environment conservation in Chennai.

A lot of what I’ve said in the last paragraph might be for the records, but undoubtedly S. Muthiah stands out as a colossus, not in one, but in several fields. In some ways he is like R.K. Lakshman’s common man, looking at the world pass by and overhearing everything that’s being said, and in many ways he’s the person people look up to and stand up when he enters a room or approaches. He doesn’t wear a suit (except when he’s abroad at a formal function, like at an Anglo-Indians do recently in Australia) or a tie or a belt, or even shoes (except when there’s a formal function or when the rules of a club make him do so), but he earns respect wherever he goes. He never ever tom-toms, and that is the hallmark of a great person.

I’m so glad I bumped into him quite unwittingly as a journalism student, and then went on to keep an association alive and running for two decades. Indeed, it’s been a matter of pride and privilege.


Meera said…
good write up, sashi.

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